The promotion of Conservative MP Alistair Burt to Minister for the Middle East within Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) demonstrates that the UK’s friendship with the Saudi-aligned Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states will remain toxic.
Between May 2010 and October 2013, Burt was only an Under-Secretary of State at the FCO, with responsibility for “Counter Terrorism, Counter Proliferation, Counter Piracy, North America, Middle East and North Africa, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.” As of earlier this month, he is now a full minister of state, responsible solely for the Middle East; he also holds a second ministerial position at the Department for International Development.
As Under-Secretary, Burt had a long record of protecting the Bahrain-Britain intimate relationship. It was not just, as one activist put it, the usual “meaningless FCO shtick” in which he repeatedly claimed that progress was being made on reforms even when it patently wasn’t. It was a serious of smears, lies and fabrications which went above and beyond the call of duty. There is no reason to believe that his time as a full minister will be any different; in his time out of government office he engaged deeply with GCC lobbyists.
That the lobbyists were interested in him is unsurprising. From 2011 (“the Arab Spring”) until he left the FCO in 2013, despite repeated requests, Burt never admitted that British equipment had been used against pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain. He claimed there was no evidence that British-supplied shotguns, teargas and stun grenades had been used in the suppression of protests, despite ample photographic proof. When asked whether AssetCo, a private fire equipment company based in Britain, was involved in the crackdown, he twisted away from the truth; it was.
It was BAE Systems armoured cars, manufactured in Newcastle, which were used by the Saudis when they intervened to save the Al-Khalifa ruling family from wipe-out by deploying troops during the Bahrain protests. Burt claimed meekly that they were only there to “safeguard installations.” The Campaign Against The Arms Trade (CAAT) pointed out that even if this was the case, “the Saudi presence in that country increases the capacity of the Bahraini authorities to suppress protests.”
Burt then smeared a Bahraini human rights organisation for offering criticism of the regime; a group which had, coincidentally, helped to organise the 2011 protests.
In the summer of 2013, a Labour MP asked about rights allegations raised by “the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights”. “I have not seen the report,” Burt replied bluntly. The report in question dealt with specific cases of the abuse of prisoners, but he still seemed to know a lot about the specific society. It was almost as if he had been briefed on what to say. He told parliament that the BYSHR was merely “an unregistered non-governmental organisation… and its credibility is untested.” It was a naked attempt to discredit the group.
Mohammed Al-Maskati founded the BYSHR some six years previously. He had applied for it to be registered under Bahrain’s onerous charity regulations, but had been turned down for being too critical of the state. His father-in-law is a prominent political prisoner.
Al-Maskati is now a senior consultant for the highly credible Frontline Defenders organisation. In 2011, Amnesty International adopted his case after the regime sent out a mass text message calling for his death because his society had been a leading organisation in the Pearl Roundabout protests.
Since the mid-2000s, Al-Maskati has been subject to constant judicial and other forms of harassment, including public discrediting. Minister Alistair Burt has looked comfortable about joining in with these attacks.
Burt also displayed studied indifference to anyone facilitating the crackdown and refused to engage with the organisers of the Formula One Grand Prix who were heavily criticised for repeatedly hosting their events in Manama in subsequent years. He also refused to raise with European allies the allegations that they were shipping surveillance technologies to the regime in Bahrain, and completely ignored reports that a British social media monitoring firm, Olton, was also involved, working for the Bahrain ministry of the interior.
What Burt has done since October 2013 until his re-appointment as a senior minister is even more of a concern. He is clearly a man beholden to Saudi-aligned GCC interests. Two months after he stepped down, the Bahrain parliament paid for him to attend the Manama Dialogue, arranged by the PR firm Meade Hall & Associates.
Although he was despatched temporarily to the Department of Health for another ministerial role, when the Saudi Arabian Shura (Consultative) Council arrived on a flying visit to London in 2015, Burt sat down with its members for a cosy meeting.
The new minister’s relationship with the UAE has also remained close. This April, before he was re-appointed to the FCO, Burt took it upon himself to lead a delegation of British MPs to the country, and appeared in the de facto state-controlled media encouraging further economic co-operation. He also became chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the UAE.
Burt has also maintained a relationship with Bell Pottinger, the PR firm enlisted to defend the State of Bahrain during the 2011 crackdown. In 2015, he was appointed as a non-executive director of the oil and gas exploration company President Energy, whose own lobbying and public relations are also handled by Bell Pottinger. The PR agency also handles secretariat functions for the APPG on Bahrain, a pressure group for Bahraini state interests; Burt is a member. There is an alternative grouping for those British politicians in favour of democratisation, known as the APPG for Democracy in Bahrain; Burt is not a member.
Even after Alistair Burt left the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the APPG Bahrain continued to court him, perhaps in the hope that, one day, he might be returned to greater office; so did the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and he has. The minister is clearly the GCC’s man at the FCO; we should be wary about who he really works for.